An unflinching look at the legacy of violence on both perpetrator and victim, 'Five Minutes of Heaven' is a dark, intense yet ultimately hopeful piece of work about the human spirit's ability to overcome the cyclical nature of violence.
Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose film 'Downfall' sought to explain the horrors of World War Two through individual actions, 'Five Minutes of Heaven' is the story of the impact of murder on two men's lives during Northern Ireland's Troubles. In real life, extensive interviews were conducted with the two central characters, with the film a fictional interpretation of what might happen should these men ever come face to face.
In 1975, 17-year-old Alistair Little wants to become a man. Already a member of the UVF, he and three of his teenage friends have received the order to kill Catholic Jim Griffin. While the victim's brother Joe kicks a football in front of the Griffin house, Little arrives and dispatches three bullets to the back of Jim Griffin's head. Although he gives the younger Joe an icy stare, he lets him live.
Fast-forward to present day and Joe (Nesbitt) has been tracked down by a TV company and offered the chance to meet his brother's killer (Neeson) face-to-face, in a meeting which is aimed at reconciliation and forgiveness. A nervous, sometimes maniacal Joe, whose life has been blighted by an unforgiving mother and the early death of a heart-broken father, wants nothing to do with reconciliation and forgiveness, only revenge on the man he justifiably feels ruined his life. Alistair (Neeson) is a broken man, haunted by the guilt of the crime he committed. As the cameras roll downstairs, Joe readies himself with a knife and prepares to kill the man he has hated for over 30 years.
Revenge, retribution, reconciliation - these are serious themes for what is a serious film. With the Troubles a wound that is only beginning to heal for some - and will never for others - and with this film based on a real murder, 'Five Minutes of Heaven' is a bold film, and one which never avoids difficult questions that arise after three decades of mutual violence between two communities.
Greatly helped by two skilful lead performances, Neeson as the loyalist haunted by his deed and Nesbitt as the awkward, unforgiving victim, still unable to come to terms with the savagery inflicted on his family, the film manages to insightfully humanise a conflict that claimed the lives of over 3,000 people.
The flashbacks to 1970s Northern Ireland are skilfully done, as is the background to the killing, exposing it as random act of violence, perpetrated by one neighbour on another - a hallmark of much of the conflict.
'Five Minutes of Heaven' benefits greatly from low-key directing, but it is let down by glossing-over part of each characters' lives. Joe, for example, ultimately finds redemption in his family. However, his wife and children are only briefly introduced. Alistair, for his part, is presented to us as a man haunted by his deed, who now helps others with reconciliation after the violence that was perpetrated, yet, with no perspective on how he came to choose this path, it rings somewhat hollow.
The strongest parts of the film are the flashbacks and the run up to the filming of the one-on-one documentary. The second half, which deals with a later meeting of the two, comes across as being light on substance, and ends up as an anti-climax.
That said, 'Five Minutes of Heaven' ultimately succeeds as a statement of the difficulties in overcoming a cycle of violence. An insightful look at the effects of killing on both victim and perpetrator, it ultimately offers hope that reconciliation is possible.